Diversity and PR – a do-si-do of two steps forward and one back

In many ways 2015 has been a year of diversity, something we at PR Conversations champion in our vision to reflect a wide variety of voices, shine a light on lesser-known people and new experiences, offer a platform for informed discussions and take a fresh approach to looking at public relations in a global-local context. Over the years we have published many articles that relate to diversity in the occupation – most recently with Enrica Orecchia‘s second post concerning Italian females in PR, while I raised questions about older PR practitioners alongside Jane Crofts’ end-of-career reflections.

For my PhD studies focused on career strategies in public relations, I’ve been researching the demographics of British public relations and consequently, recognise many of the challenges identified in the 2015 PR Diversity study by Applebaum and Walton, as well as the latest CIPR report: From Diversity to Inclusion: The Progression of Equality in Public Relations and Challenges for the Future.

The PR Diversity study (funded by PRSA) focuses on careers of ‘under-represented groups’ in PR in the US, although its entire emphasis is on those who are ‘non-white’. This binary division (as considered further below) is problematic as it is value-laden in suggesting a hierarchical relationship, and a tension, as practitioners are placed either side – firmly establishing an ‘other’ perspective.

The CIPR Diversity Working Group document highlights several vectors of identity within public relations: gender, race, age, disability, sexuality – although others such as social class, education, parenthood, geographic origins, etc are given less of a profile, despite their importance in understanding ourselves as communicators and the perspectives we reflect in our work.

It is this latter aspect that is commonly used (including in both of the above reports) as an argument for greater diversity in the occupation. That is, PR practitioners need to reflect, and indeed, represent, the communities in which they operate. Critically, the argument of a business advantage in employing a diverse workforce is emphasised. However, as the CIPR report acknowledges, this can lead to segregation where practitioners are employed for, and potentially restricted to, campaigns targeting the groups which they are presumed to represent. Such ‘specialisation’ is not simply imposed upon practitioners, as it is an argument made frequently by those within the group.

Historical perspective

This ‘representation’ argument in favour of diversity is a long-standing one. For example, Jacquie L’Etang notes the perspective was evident in the 1950s and 1960s when women were encouraged into public relations specifically to engage with female journalists and target a growing women’s market. She cites Gina Franklin, president of the Association of Women in Public Relations who said in 1963:

Thinking women have a unique property to offer big business. We as women know the kind of attitudes women are likely to take up regarding new developments, new processes and are therefore in a position to advise. Women are extremely conscientious, and if they “fall in love” with a product, or believe in it, they can produce miracles of resourcefulness.

Perhaps ironically, this trend opened the door to women who subsequently have come to dominate the industry numerically. However, there is still an imbalance in gender representation in certain industries. For example, women tend to dominate at all levels in beauty and fashion. In my own sector, the motor industry, men outnumber women by around 2:1 in PR roles, which statistically is the reverse  of the wider PR population in the UK. There are many other issues affecting gender equality, notably around pay and progression.

Need to create a sensitive and adaptive culture in PR

It therefore seems odd to foreground this ‘representation’, economic rationale to justify recruitment along other vectors of identity. Not only is it discriminatory, but it is ridiculous to suggest that any sector of society based on crude variables such as race, gender or age is homogenous and understood simply because we may ‘belong’ to it in demographic terms. Ironically, the PR Diversity study notes how many young practitioners feel a need to ‘dissociate’ themselves with their culture when working within the occupation. This is a odd message when someone may be recruited for ‘difference’, but then feel a need to pretend to be the same as everyone else. Hardly reflective of cultural sensitivity within the occupation.

In March 2015 I wrote a post on my Greenbanana blog about belonging to a ‘sinister minority group‘ as I am left-handed. My point was that this aspect of my identity gives me a particular perspective. I could argue the same for having been a vegetarian for over 30 years, or being a dog owner or not having children. Each of these facts places me in a stakeholder group where I may be targeted by PR campaigns. Yet we don’t think about recruiting practitioners as representatives of such groupings, let alone being able to reflect a specific mix of characteristics.

Rather, we recognise that research is necessary to understand a group or individuals within it. So let’s stop looking at diversity within public relations from a representation perspective and recognise instead that we should be recruiting for talent ensuring that PR is attractive as an occupation to a wide variety of people. The step forward is to remove barriers and open doors for the right reason. More importantly, to ensure that the environment within public relations is welcoming and adaptive rather than forcing cultural change to ‘fit’ within occupational norms.

Increasing the diversity scope beyond binary divisions

Taking this further, another issue, as mentioned above, with talking about increased diversity is that most of the vectors of identity are positioned as binary propositions, meaning that ‘others’ are judged against a traditional norm.

Hence that ‘benchmark’ becomes the default – even when it is not a majority. For example, men are seen as senior managers, so women need to break through and be judged to be as good as, or better than, a male counterpart. This seems to reinforce a male-first approach – even within a numerically female-dominated industry, or when that man may be mediocre.

This applies not just to PR or in management but in speaking opportunities and many other ways. Likewise, those who do not reflect the dominant race, sexuality or age-bracket within a culture are the ‘other’ to a presumed default option.

It is hard to identify and step away from stereotypes, presumptions, default behaviour and preference for ‘people like us’, but we need to do that without presupposing the alternative choice is an ‘otherness’ that is a riskier, edgier or otherwise notable option. The real step forward is to stop looking at what is diverse, and also look beyond homogeneity or homophily.

Stop misrepresenting – start acting as cultural intermediaries

My third step forward looks at why diversity has had a higher profile this year – and why this is a challenge for PR practice. Diversity has been in the news, and where there is news, there is a PR practitioner.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ve seen much leadership from PR communicators in the many issues that have been subject to public, and political debate this year. Indeed, the occupation may be found as much in misrepresentation as in championing causes.

Take discussion and acceptance of transgender communities. Caitlyn Jenner has undoubtedly been a catalyst for media attention, but in extrapolating her experiences as representative, other voices have struggled to be recognised and heard. This has resulted in backlash and criticisms generating more media attention. Can we perhaps move forwards and not backwards in ensuring debates are more nuanced than polarised?

Likewise, consider the announcement by Sports Illustrated that Serena Williams is its sportsperson of the year – which has been overshadowed somewhat by the social media tendency to highlight the trivial, in this case that a horse gained more public votes than the tennis player did. It has been a strong year for women breaking through as athletes rather than women playing sport. But then we get an historic cover image which whilst claimed to reflect “femininity, strength & power” is a far more airbrushed image than the one of Serena in the Pirelli 2016 calendar. Mind you, it isn’t hard to argue that the ‘new kind’ of female image represented there is intended more to reinvigorate the tired promotional device than actually reflect diversity (despite the range of women photographed).

Or examine the high profile John Lewis Christmas advert in the UK that reflects a cause related tie up with Age UK. Undoubtedly it offers a positive outcome of a marketing campaign, but it does also represent older people in a particular way. Indeed, criticism of the campaign left space for the Aldi supermarket to create a spoof and further public debate.

Critical examination of the role of PR practitioners as cultural intermediaries in society reflects a socio-cultural turn in the academic study of the occupation and its role in the past five or so years. But this doesn’t seem to have yet connected with practice in terms of a more complete understanding of diversity, uniqueness and holism within the occupation – and our engagement as professional communicators with increasingly complex and important issues.

I could add further examples ranging from Donald Trump’s divisive narratives to the furore around comments made by Sam’s Club CEO to representation of those with mental health issues and many other aspects of life that reflect on PR’s inability to tackle our inherent diversity – and commonality. Perhaps we would do well to step away from our natural tendency to look for the headline, the ‘story’, the sensational and the ideal representation of our clients or employers and recognise that issues affecting various sectors of society aren’t simply matters to be used in promotional campaigns.

Undoubtedly 2015 has seen a host of topics relating to the diversity of society come to the fore – two steps forward. But we also take one step back when we encourage and encounter a war of words whether through traditional or online media channels. If we are not to find ourselves in a permanent do-si-do dance where we continue to end up back where we started, I’d like 2016 to reflect two things:

First, a focus on cultural sensitivity among PR practitioners by our professional bodies – and the major consultancies who are leading on ‘diversity recruitment’. We can’t simply open the door to PR without ensuring everyone working here has a high level of cultural intelligence – and is able to translate this into improved communications rather than simply chasing headlines through simplistic and stereotyped narratives or campaigns.

Second, we should look beyond seeing other people in relation to blunt divisions of identity, whether in recruiting or promoting public relations practitioners, devising campaigns or offering intelligent counsel to senior management. The world is not best served by everyone dancing to different tunes. Whatever cultural references inform the way we choose to strut our stuff, we should do so freely and allow others the space to express themselves on the PR dance floor. Let’s recognise and learn to communicate and connect in a variety of ways; let’s just face the music and dance to the rhythm of life. And remember, as the contemporary dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham said:

Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body. And it’s partly the language that we don’t want to show.

Image attribution: Birgit Brånvall [CC BY 3.0 no (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/no/deed.en), via Wikimedia Commons]

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3 Replies to “Diversity and PR – a do-si-do of two steps forward and one back

  1. Thank you Paul. Increasingly it seems that ‘diversity’ is being used as a narrative by those who champion a focus on specific aspects of identity as well as those who use it for divisive purposes. This is not to dismiss the importance of addressing where power is imbalanced in the world, but I’m not convinced that most of the rhetoric nor many ‘initiatives’ are helping rebalance inequities.

  2. Good thoughtful post, Heather. In my view there is nothing more divisive than identity politics. Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when everybody would be judged by their character rather than the color of their skin; I see it the same way with women, Gays and any other group. Our biology or origins or sexuality should not define or constrain us.

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